As a theologian and ethicist grounded in the sixteenth-century Reformed theological tradition I am quite familiar with Protestant discomfort over sacred images, whether in worship or public art. Still, while forbidding the use of images in worship, John Calvin affirms human creativity, even painting and sculpture, as gifts from God that in the proper context can educate and give pleasure.
Reformed South African liberation theologian John W. de Gruchy, in his book Christianity, Art and Transformation (2001), brings together theological aesthetics with pressing social concerns in an analysis of the role of art in social transformation. De Gruchy explores the contributions of visual artists and public art in resisting apartheid in South Africa (while acknowledging similar developments in Latin American liberation theology) in order to argue that the arts play a prophetic and redemptive role in human struggles for justice.
This symposium explores the intersection of aesthetics and ethics by focusing on the role of murals and other forms of public art, especially popular religious art, in nurturing and empowering political movements of resistance and liberation. From mural art in East L.A., to the role of graffiti in Palestinian resistance, to the murals honoring the martyrs of the struggles in Northern Ireland, this panel brings together a diverse group of reflections on the role of public art in articulating political theologies.
David A. Sánchez, Associate Professor of Early Christianity and Christian Origins at Loyola Marymount University, begins the symposium with a reflection on the public art of Northern Ireland commemorating the heroes on both sides of the Troubles. Sánchez dares ask whether or not these murals, often steeped in religious imagery (both Catholic and Protestant), ought to be removed given their sectarian history and content. James W. Perkinson, activist, poet, and educator, then offers a mediation on the politics of color in Detroit via mural and graffiti art that gives voice to a rich tradition of decolonial resistance through public–and unsanctioned–works of street art. Robert O. Smith, theologian, pastor, and Director of the Briarwood Leadership Center in Northern Texas, ruminates on walls, physical and conceptual, as both material structures of racial and ethnic exclusion and conceptual spaces for political emancipatory resistance. Nichole Flores, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, responds to David Sánchez’s piece by exploring the need for democratic discernment in deciding the value and preservation of controversial public art. The final piece, by my Saint Louis University colleague, Rachel Lindsey, a historian of American religion and culture, explores the tension between violence and redemption in contemporary religious art.
Public art as political theology brings sacred images to the political arena, often with the support of a marginalized community, even when the uses of sacred images transgress deeply held religious convictions for the sake of much needed social transformation. For example, the ubiquitous Virgen de Guadalupe found in the Chicano mural art of East Los Angeles has been appropriated as a symbol of Mexican nationalism, Chicano racial pride, and Latinx political resistance. As such, it serves as a paradigmatic example of public religious art employed in the service of a political theology of resistance. Still, we cannot forget that for millions of Guadalupanas and Guadalupanos the image of Guadalupe is not the creation of human hands but a theophany–a direct and unmediated revelation from God–and as such something more than art. The use of sacred art in the public square forces us to contemplate the liturgical dimension of political life in our radically secularized and pluralist age.